Commentary Magazine


The Railroaders, by Stuart Leuthner

Working

The Railroaders.
by Stuart Leuthner.
Random House. 152 pp. $19.95.

This is a book about thirty-two people who made railroads run, including two women—one a brake-man (brakeperson?), the other a crew caller—and two blacks, one a chef on the 20th Century Limited, the other a porter in Grand Central Station. Each tells a brief life story in his own words, illustrated with photographs saved in attics or albums.

In this age in which old artifacts varying from primitive nickel-silver fishing reels to early Oldsmobiles evoke a nostalgic sense of loss that seems close to bathos, the stories here, almost entirely devoted to steam locomotives, could have been the occasion for idolatry of the behemoths of pre-gasoline transport. We could have been told how much better it was to shovel coal on a rocking locomotive platform than to breathe auto exhaust poisons. We could have heard that nothing will ever again be so wonderful as when the water level dropped and the superheated steam in the boiler made you go 110 miles an hour until the tubes burst.

Or in the same age in which, whether or not related to nostalgia, it has become fashionable (à la Studs Terkel) to record the voices of the working class in order to attack modern industrial life as corrupt, exploitative, and essentially meaningless, this book could have amounted to just another denigration of capitalism.

The Railroaders is neither. On the contrary, these separate life stories give us a picture of people whose jobs, even when menial, stimulated their pride and gratified what Veblen loosely called “the instinct of workmanship.” Interestingly, pride is evident not only in the engineer who advanced by spending his nights studying the theory of thermodynamics and who learned to adjust the delicate but rugged valves whose precise alignment made his locomotive run smoothly, but even in the Grand Central Station porter, Oswald Thorne. In discussing his career at the station, Thorne sets forth an analysis of the passengers whose bags he carried to the crack overnight trains:

You got so you could prejudge a person—if they were going to be a good, a mediocre, or just a plain bad tipper. Those who smoked pipes, they were usually conservative and they never gave you too much. Somebody smoking a cigarette or carrying an attaché case that looked like it might have some whiskey in it, they were good tippers. You got so you could tell by the luggage.

Thorne’s all-time favorite was Jimmy Durante: “Always had a $10 bill in his hand no matter how many bags he had.”

Thorne’s pride made his job more than simply a matter of choosing the right bags to lift. On one occasion, he recalls, the Wolverine, headed for Detroit, was mistakenly put on the wrong Grand Central track, while a train to Chicago was standing where the Wolverine should have been. The family whose bags he was carrying wanted the Wolverine, but they arrived in the station so early that he stored their luggage on the Chicago-bound train occupying the Wolverine’s proper spot before they themselves had boarded the train. Suddenly, it started out of the station. Instead of simply letting the bags go to Chicago while their bereft owners, sans nightwear and toothbrushes, went to Detroit, Thorne stayed aboard the Chicago train to Harmon, New York, sixty miles or so up the track, where all New York Central trains stopped. He took the bags off and waited for more than an hour until the Wolverine arrived at Harmon. “Well,” he tells Stuart Leuthner,

the Wolverine finally comes in and these people are giving me a hard time because they think it’s my fault. It was my fault for not checking and that woman looked at me and just shook her head. She wasn’t going to pay me and I didn’t expect nothing, but I guess she was happy to get her bags back after all that.

A memorable vignette is contributed by Irene Ingison, who did not like being a secretary or a nurse, and joined the New York Central as a brakeman during the war, only to spend the rest of her working life on the railroad, much of it in the East Syracuse yards. There, as an outdoor switch tender, she was threatened with the loss of her job because of her sex when the yards were modernized and the workforce reduced in 1968. She fought and won in court, but, finding work opportunities limited in Syracuse, she then moved to Buffalo. Her words on going there:

I’ll tell you, they were surprised when I drove into the Buffalo yard for the first time. I went up there in a pair of pink shorts and my hair up in curlers. I walked into the caller’s office and asked to see his seniority book as far back as 1944. The guy didn’t give me a hard time. He had heard there were women brakemen in Syracuse, but he hadn’t seen one. Evidently he must have figured I knew what I was talking about. Talking seniority, 1944. I looked over the book and then I asked him what jobs were up for bid. I looked these over and then told him to tell that guy, there, he’s bumped Monday. You should have heard him. Here I was walking into his railroad in my pink shorts and bumping one of his men. Oh, Christ, we had more laughs. The guys treated me great. They really did.

If these two stories are exceptional, it is not for the feeling Mr. Thorne and Mrs. Ingison express for their jobs, but only because most of the other narratives in this book describe the work of people actually on the trains. These people came into railroading either to carry on a family tradition or to rebel against a family tradition—farming, for example. Often they quit school and wandered around the country before ending up in a job that required strength and will but no particular education. The suggestion is irresistible that schooling is a relatively insignificant part of preparation for a working life, even one that ultimately demands a measure of technical know-how and theoretical understanding of underlying principles. The Railroaders is by no means a statistical study, but on the railroads, at least, dropouts who left home seemed to do as well as those who came from traditional homes and full families.

What accounts for the enthusiasm for work this volume exudes—as opposed to today’s widespread impression that it is the exceptional American who enjoys working? Perhaps steam railroaders are a specially situated group who derive intense satisfaction from the nature of the equipment with which they work: its immense power, its gift of mobility, and yet its comprehensible technology that permits and rewards the involvement of the workman in its proper functioning. Or perhaps the railroad unions—often favorably mentioned by the contributors to this book—helped build a special spirit among an elite, who could preen themselves on the importance of their role in keeping America ahead of the world, and were well paid in consequence.

_____________

 

The stories in the book cover the shift from steam to diesel engines, and the narrators, while welcoming the increased ease and comfort of the diesel over the old steam cab and the new freedom from having to stop every hundred-fifty miles to take on water and coal, clearly feel that something vital went out of railroading with the change. Yet they do recognize the reasons for it. The steam engine, for all its overt power, was grossly inefficient. A good engineer could minimize coal and water consumption by adjusting his valves, and by careful use of the throttle he could level out the grades of the roadbed; but the engine wasted far more heat than it put to work. So the steam engineers sighed, but for the most part accepted the inevitable replacement of the machines they loved by the more efficient diesel engine.

The feeling for railroading itself, however, has hardly disappeared with the steam engine. Even in the diesel age, much of the excitement has remained—the swift movement through the countryside, the control of an immense concentration of power, the sense of being part of a team all of whose members must coordinate in order to achieve the objective of moving freight and passengers quickly and well.

The “well” is important—and too easily forgotten. Even the changed and advanced technologies that govern much of the workplace today leave room for distinguishing between the well and the badly handled. And the same is true in many of the more menial jobs that are part of the service sector, as in the cases of those railroaders, like Mr. Thorne and Mrs. Ingison, who were not sitting in the cabs of the great locomotives. They found satisfaction in their work because they expected to find it, and they expected to find it because satisfaction in work well done, and acceptance of the authority of skill and experience, were natural attitudes in the America of sixty and seventy years ago in which these people were raised.

The weight of the culture has since been brought to bear against work pride; nowadays just about the only activities in which one starts with the assumption that work is not self-defeating are athletics, the arts, and pure science. By contrast, the people chronicled in The Railroaders started with the assumption that willingness to work hard is itself a virtue. Nostalgia for that attitude is the sinew that holds their stories together. It is, by all odds, a more productive nostalgia than the longing for a return of the steam locomotive and its whistle that called in the night to restless rural folk to join an America on the move.

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